Miss Julie and Its Preface: The Foundation of a Critical Conflict
From its first publication and performance, August Strindberg's play "Miss Julie" has been the source of critical controversy and debate. Written in the span of little more than one month in the summer of 1888, the play was banned or censored throughout Europe in the late Nineteenth Century. Because it dealt with situations and attitudes deemed morally or socially offensive (the daughter of an aristocrat seduces her father's valet, and he, in turn, coerces her to commit suicide) the initial negative reaction to the play was rooted in generalized, fanatical, self righteous outrage and did not seek to deal with or engage the text in any specific manner. Instead, "Miss Julie
" was a convenient target, symptomatic of all that was corrupting and dangerous in an increasingly progressive world. By the early Twentieth Century
, however, more focused moral and artistic critiques were leveled at Strindberg's self proclaimed naturalistic tragedy, a discussion that continues to thrive even today. Though some of the moral and social issues may have lost their radical edge in later decades, there is still an ongoing, lively, and deeply divided debate.
This is not to suggest that these modern critical concerns have forged superior or even different links with the past or to this piece of literature. On the contrary, I would submit that Strindberg himself, as a literary critic of his own work, established (consciously or unconsciously) the fundamental guidelines and ground rules for the interpretive controversies that have followed. By creating a dynamic tension between his theoretical, essentially pragmatic intentions in his "Preface
to Miss Julie" and his creative achievements in " Miss Julie" itself, Strindberg's explicit dialogue opens interpretive space and invites other critics to fill this space with their various, even openly hostile, voices. As critic and creator, Strindberg has effectively dictated the direction of discourse surrounding his play. To determine Strindberg's impact on the continuous generation of this controversy, we must examine and assess his preface in conjunction with the primary interpretive concerns of several critics of "Miss Julie" both early and modern.
Though Strindberg's dramatic method is characterized by a compulsion to experiment, the innovations he sought to develop were designed with a specific moral and social agenda in mind. In this manner, the "Preface to Miss Julie" represents an ideological and artistic manifesto.
Strindberg envisions the "dramatist as lay preacher hawking contemporary ideas in a popular form", while simultaneously insisting that "I have not tried to do anything new- for that one can never do- but merely to modernize the form so as to meet the demands which I supposed that the new man and woman of today would make of this art"(Strindberg 91-2). He is painfully aware of what he calls "our declining capacity for illusion" and wants to prevent the theatre from "being discarded as a dying form which we lack the necessary conditions to enjoy" (Strindberg 99,92). "Miss Julie" is thus orchestrated to aid in or anticipate the arrival of a "hyper-sensitive spectator" (Strindberg 92). Strindberg is fundamentally concerned with the ethical/intellectual response his work evokes in an audience. He yearns for the time "when we shall have discarded those inferior and unreliable thought-mechanisms called feelings, which will become superfluous and harmful when our powers of judgment reach maturity" (Strindberg 92).
To realize this vision, Strindberg attempts to create a complex, convoluted imitation of psychological, rather than surface reality. He posits "Miss Julie" as a mimesis of interiority. "I believe what most interests people today is the psychological process. Our prying minds are not content merely with seeing something happen- they must know why it happens" (Strindberg 99). The missing fourth wall of the stage allows the audience privileged access to the literal and psychological world of the play. Strindberg proposes to offer an accurate but not absolute reflection of human psyches in open or secret conflict with themselves and with others. "My souls (or characters) are agglomerations of past and present cultures...fragments of humanity...in just the same way that a human soul is patched together"(Strindberg 95). His "characterless" characters and the "multiplicity of motives" they express continue to grow, develop, evolve, remaining "too difficult to catch, classify, and keep tabs on" (Strindberg 94).
His mimetic skills express a fundamental commitment to psychological indeterminacy that could possibly empower or educate an audience. "I find the joy in life in life's cruel and mighty conflicts; I delight in knowledge and discovery" (Strindberg 93). Strindberg is able to offer specific interpretations of character that explicate his fundamental thematic concerns: a new and better order supplanting the old. While "Miss Julie" stresses the importance of "the problem of social ascent and decline, of higher and lower, better or worse, man or woman" as one "of permanent interest", Strindberg does realize "...the spectator commonly settles for the one [interpretation] that he finds easiest to understand, or that he finds most flattering to his powers of judgment" (Strindberg 92-3). He seems to anticipate the vehement knee-jerk opposition to "Miss Julie". The play is thus an envoy toward but not a guarantee of the emergence of a more perceptive audience. Drama is literally and metaphorically collaborative. His play can set an audience's imagination in motion within a fictional environment, but each member of the audience will ultimately complete his or her own pictures (Strindberg 103). Through his preface, Strindberg invites an audience to regard "Miss Julie" as an opportunity to witness and possibly experience the painful but ultimately rewarding process of discovery and change, in short, to learn so that "the theatre might once again become a place for educated people" (103).
Rather than the general examination of human consciousness Strindberg describes in his preface and endeavors to realize in "Miss Julie", early Twentieth Century critics like Otto Heller and Archibald Henderson view his drama as the ultimate expression of personal consciousness, a most profound statement of self. This assumption becomes the source of either literary excellence or intense derision, depending largely upon the critical project of the critic.
In Prophets of Dissent, Otto Heller uses an expressive argument to justify his very pragmatic assessment of the merit of Strindberg's work. According to Heller, there is literally no distinction between Strindberg and his art. "August Strindberg is the sole protagonist in all his dramaturgy" (Heller 73). To make such broad and polemic statements, Heller seems to draw directly from Strindberg's preface, while almost entirely ignoring "Miss Julie" in particular or any of his plays at all for that matter. Heller understands well the pragmatic goal Strindberg mapped out for himself, stating that Strindberg believed "literature should pattern itself after a serious newspaper: it should seek to influence not to entertain" (77). It is Strindberg's preoccupation or near obsession with his own ego, Heller asserts, which prevents him from achieving this goal. Rather than creating characters without character, Julie and Jean are merely facets of Strindberg's aberrant personality. "Rarely, if ever, has a writer of eminence demonstrated a similar incapacity to reproduce the thoughts and feelings of other people...all his leading characters are merely outward projections of his own sentiments and ideas" (Heller 73). He is willing to admit that Strindberg's plays in general may have "rendered a measure of valuable service to his time", as a "typical case of certain mental and moral maladies which somehow during his time were more or less epidemic throughout the lettered world" or possibly as a valuable case study in the "unexplored field of analytic psychology" (Heller 104,73,92). Ultimately, though, Heller assumes a position of moral and intellectual superiority to Strindberg. Literature should advance knowledge and thus improve humanity. Strindberg's work is essentially irrelevant to Heller, having "added nothing to the stock of human understanding" (101).
Ironically, Archibald Henderson points to the same overlap of personal and artistic consciousness as a standard of literary quality rather than failure. While "Miss Julie" may meet with varying degrees of success even when judged by this standard, Henderson's concerns are fundamentally and explicitly expressive. "The supreme goal of great literature of our era has been and remains the expression in some form of final artistic denotement, of the struggle of the ego at self-realization" (Henderson 3). As "the greatest subjectivist of modern times" or a consummate "journalist of personal consciousness", Strindberg's life and art are hopelessly interconnected (Henderson 4,7). Like "Miss Julie", his life is "so predominantly chaotic,...it seems to defy analysis, or even adequate comprehension" (Henderson 10). Because we cannot make sense of his life, Henderson asserts, his drama remains elusive or even disturbing. "Miss Julia is one of the most startling, most shocking plays of our era; but its ugly theme is the main reason for its existence" (Henderson 51). The ugly, shocking repellent issues Strindberg raises in "Miss Julie" are simply reflections of the impact of his life experiences, his idealism tainted by extreme bitterness.
Instead of dealing directly with the play, however, Henderson's critique takes issue with Strindberg's preface and attempts to distance or discount its influence. "In his notable Preface, Strindberg...gives the most elaborate explications of the purpose, meaning and significance of the tragedy...yet never a hint of it is found in the play itself" (Henderson 51). While promising to provide interpretive openings to "Miss Julie", "the preface is a tricky means of eking out all the deficiencies of the play" (Henderson 51). Henderson points to Strindberg's emphasis of the class conflict between the aristocracy and peasantry as particularly artificial, unconvincing and unrealistic (51). Strindberg's individual subjective psychology is valued above his ability to create a coherent and universal portrayal of the human mind, even though "Miss Julie" itself is marred by "sex disillusionment" (Henderson 52). Henderson supports this claim most directly, however, not from Strindberg's own bitter life struggles with women, but from Strindberg's unequivocal misogynystic statements in the preface. "Miss Julie is a modern character", a "half-woman...synonymous with corruption...[Jean] has the whip-hand of Miss Julie simply because he is a man. Sexually he is an aristocrat by virtue of his masculine strength, his more finely developed senses and his ability to seize the initiative" (Strindberg 95,97). In many ways, Henderson's perspective on "Miss Julie" seems to stand as a reaction to or reversal of questions raised by the preface. Despite the specific failings of the play, Henderson acknowledges the expressive qualities of Strindberg's art as the work of "a supreme artist, whose ideal was cultural development" (71).
Modern critics, who, on the whole, are less interested in the overtly pragmatic effects of literature, continue to use Strindberg's preface as an interpretive toe-hold in their attempts to understand or explain "Miss Julie". While some of the expressive arguments of the past have become theoretical assumptions requiring no substantive explication (Strindberg's art being a reflection, to a greater or lesser degree, of his psyche), the fundamental concerns of critics like Evert Sprinchorn, Egil Tornqvist and Brian Jacobs, and Raymond Williams, seem to be structural in nature.
Because Strindberg's social commentary lacks the radical currency it once held, Evert Sprinchorn seems to focus on the formal aspects of the play. Based upon the label applied to "Miss Julie" by Strindberg himself in his preface, Sprinchorn attempts to unravel the paradoxes implied in the term naturalistic tragedy. He comes to the conclusion that "Miss Julie" fails as a tragedy, but aspires toward it, a modern expression of this classic form (Sprinchorn 35). Ironically, Sprinchorn also attempts to distance himself from the preface in order to consider the text as an isolated structure of unified aesthetic strategies. "The preface was written, however, to sell the play rather than explain it" (28). Sprinchorn cautions against privileging Strindberg's interpretation of his own work; the play can and should be dealt with as a separate and distinct entity.
However much he tries, though, Sprinchorn returns to the preface to ground his powerful argument. How can the play be both naturalistic and a tragedy, he asks, when naturalism seeks to deny the existence of free will? In this manner, Sprinchorn identifies and attempts to reconcile the problematic aspirations of the preface and the actual characters and events of the play. The preface tries to articulate a higher form of naturalism, "an exaltation of life", rather than a "faithful imitation of nature" (Sprinchorn 27,49). As a dramatist, Strindberg's task then becomes "to supply what [is] significant", an exercise in "selective realism" (Sprinchorn 29-30). Thus, "'Miss Julie' is all climax and catastrophe" (Sprinchorn 36). The defining circumstances of Julie's character create "an equivalent of fate or the universal law of the Greeks," and Julie is, ultimately, "the final arbiter"; she is her own oracle (Sprinchorn 48). These conclusions seem to underscore the dynamic relationship between characters either fixed or in flux described by Strindberg. Tragedy itself houses a great paradox: the horrific and the sublime. Rather than attempting to resolve this paradox, Sprinchorn asserts that Strindberg struggles to exploit it, "to bring the unconscious to stage with such intimacy [that] inner life becomes outer life" (49). Though Sprinchorn himself seems unaware of the fact, the paradoxical relationship of Strindberg's play and preface informs Sprinchorn's structural analysis in much the same way.
Egil Tornqvist and Barry Jacobs, in their book Strindberg's Miss Julie, stress the importance and critical necessity of exploring the connection between preface and play. "Together with its preface, ["Miss Julie"] is regarded as the most penetrating statement on naturalistic drama...To more sophisticated critics, the preface has served as a guide when analyzing the play" (Tornqvist and Jacobs, hereafter TJ 7,40). While Strindberg's preface does offer a seldom seen perspective, Tornqvist and Jacobs, like Sprinchorn, encourage us to "regard him as a critic among critics, albeit an unusually initiated one" (40).
In order to establish the merit of "Miss Julie" as literature, they seem compelled to ask the question, "What did Strindberg want to accomplish with his preface?" (TJ 51). The preface was written, almost certainly after the play. Yet the ideas expressed in the preface seem corollary and do not reflect directly upon the actions and themes of the play itself. At best, "Miss Julie" only partially expresses the ideas presented in the preface. Either the preface is a restatement of Strindberg's goals in writing "Miss Julie", or the preface displays a new attitude evolved in Strindberg after writing the play
According to Tornqvist and Jacobs, the preface describes "Miss Julie" as an attempt to communicate an understanding of the future in terms of both content and form. "Strindberg never tires of pointing out that he has written an extremely modern drama" (TJ 43). Because the play is meant for an intellectual aristocracy of the future, if the play is seen as lacking, it is a greater commentary on the reader or audience than on the inherent quality of the play. "Everywhere in the preface one comes across Darwinistic formulations" (TJ 41). Discrepancies between interpretations of play and preface (the play sympathizes with Julie and despises Jean where the preface celebrates Jean and castigates Julie) are thus a matter of evolution.
Tornqvist and Jacobs insist, however, that Jean is first and foremost a particularized character and not, as Strindberg suggests, representative of a species, a new aristocracy. They seem to rely heavily upon the assumption that the play "is an 'open' strongly connotive text," the preface "a fairly 'closed', mainly denotive one" (TJ 39). In order to promote the value and artistic achievement of the play and to avoid what they call a "post-intentional fallacy", they come to the conclusion that, in terms of critical input, the preface should ultimately be ignored. "There is every reason to take Strindberg's views of the play in the preface with a grain of salt- however interesting and however seminal they have been for the development of modern drama" (TJ 59-60). Tornqvist and Jacobs feel empowered by historical evidence to marginalize Strindberg's preface from the literary relationship to the play it presumes to analyze. While on one hand they warn against using Strindberg's unique position as critic and author to privilege his commentary, they do not balk at using his biographical background to discount or diffuse the impact of the preface upon "Miss Julie". It seems as if Tornqvist and Jacobs would rather retreat to the safety of expressive evidence, rather than let their structural claims stand on their own merits.
In his evaluation of "Miss Julie" and August Strindberg's other plays, Raymond Williams attacks such "pseudo-biographical explanations" as ineffectual attempts to shortcut the critical process. "The biography can be used to gloss, but not to explain or judge, the literature ...Criticism requires a different discipline" (Williams 75). While Williams suggests that the play must be accepted on its own terms as an arena for literary innovation, even he cannot avoid commenting on the link between play and preface. "Strindberg shows a variety of dramatic method and purpose, and an immense range of technical experiment", reconnecting with past literary devices (ballet, pantomime, monologue) to create a more potent modern form (Williams 76). Instead of a recipe that could be easily replicated, Strindberg's preface sets broadly defined structural and thematic goals.
Where Sprinchorn seeks to clarify Strindberg's gesture toward the tragic, Williams invests himself in the exploration of the natural. Naturalism did not imply photorealism to Strindberg; it was not enough to simply reproduce surface reality (Williams 81). He was concerned with conveying an accurate portrayal of certain ideas about human relationships. Suggesting the term critical naturalism, Williams asserts that, to achieve these ends, Strindberg struggles to give traditional literary forms a peculiarly modern voice. Though "the reduction to elements foreshadowed in 'Lady Julie' is never, on the surface of the plays, achieved", the success of individual dramatic innovations outweigh Strindberg's inability to follow all his proposed changes (Williams 85). Those who insist on seamlessness or unity and refuse to welcome Strindberg's preface and its link to "Miss Julie" to the critical discussion place false and even harmful limits on their inquiries. "It is this limitation, a limitation of convention, which led to the critical error of dismissing Strindberg as wild and abnormal, and to the further error of a search for an explanation in his autobiography" (Williams 85). Either for its merits or its failings, Williams argues that "Miss Julie" "must be accepted for what it is, both in its strangeness and its power", while ironically advocating the preface, a secondary source, as an avenue to discern its actual meaning, its essence, what it is (Williams 99).
Each critic, early or modern, cannot resist peering through Strindberg's preface as though it were a window, to catch even a fleeting glimpse of the actual or intended significance of "Miss Julie". The fact remains, I believe, that no single piece of criticism, regardless of its source, can or should be asked to stand as an unequivocal measure of literary quality or a rigid flowchart of authorial intention. As we have seen in each case, such preoccupation may create an interesting and ongoing critical controversy. A singular stable source of meaning remains elusive, however. Ultimately, the most telling knowledge our inquiry provides centers around the critical orientation of each voice sounded in the debate.
Henderson Archibald. European Dramatists. Cincinnati: Stewart and Kidd Co., 1913.
Heller, Otto. Prophets of Dissent. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1918.
Sprinchorn, Evert. Strindberg as Dramatist. New Haven: Yale UP, 1982.
Strindberg, August. "Preface to Miss Julie". Michael Meyer trans., 1888. Rpt. in Strindberg Plays: One. Michael Meyer trans.
Reading, UK: Cox and Wyman Ltd., 1993.
---. "Miss Julie". Michael Meyer trans., 1888. Rpt. in Strindberg Plays: One. Michael Meyer trans. Reading, UK: Cox and Wyman Ltd., 1993.
Tornqvist, Egil and Jacobs, Barry. Strindberg's Miss Julie: A Play and Its Transpositions. Norwich: Norvik, 1988.
Williams, Raymond. Drama: From Ibsen to Brecht. New York: Oxford UP, 1968.